The Mosaic Law's penal system (among others) includes the severe punishment of death by stoning. To be a little gruesome here: it takes a while to be killed in this way, and so there would theoretically be sufficient time (and impetus) for repentance and penitence before God—and consequently the punishment would take care of most or all of the temporal punishment due to the sin committed.

One Scripture especially comes to mind:

1 Corinthians 5:1-5 (DRB) It is absolutely heard, that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as the like is not among the heathens; that one should have his father's wife. 2 And you are puffed up; and have not rather mourned, that he might be taken away from among you, that hath done this deed. 3 I indeed, absent in body, but present in spirit, have already judged, as though I were present, him that hath so done, 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, you being gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus; 5 To deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Do any Church Fathers write along these lines (the merciful/practical, and not merely penal, nature of the death penalty)?

  • 1
    My understanding of stoning is that it is a communal judgment. That is to say the whole congregation of Israel in the wilderness were involved, not just one single, appointed executioner. The death is the decision of the whole assembly.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 22:59
  • Not sure if you want to include this, but we saw this movie a few years back and its depiction of stoning was striking. this one also, the Lottery, is a stark and unflinching look at stoning as a tradition. It may be worth adding a link to the question to underscore your point on the grim nature of that tradition. Your call.. Commented Mar 30, 2019 at 0:59
  • @NigelJ That doesn't speak to the fundamental purpose of said communal punishment, though. Commented Mar 30, 2019 at 14:29
  • @SolaGratia The 'said purpose' is to execute the offender. The execution is carried out communally
    – Nigel J
    Commented Mar 30, 2019 at 14:59
  • I think you completely misread my question, then, because my question has as one of its premises that the Law of Moses commands stoning/excution of the offender. That's not at all the issue. It's not whether or not its penal, but "merely penal," and whether Church Fathers comment along these lines on the matter or not. Commented Mar 30, 2019 at 22:20

1 Answer 1


Do any Church Fathers comment on the merciful nature of stoning (Catholicism)?

The short answer seems to be no. No Church Father seems to have written on the subject of the merciful nature of stoning.

Some have written on the subject of capital punishment, but opinions seem to be a little bit complicated in their analyses of that subject.

The Catholic Encyclopedia offers no supporting writings of any of the Church Fathers in its’ article on Stoning in Scripture

Palestine being a very rocky country, the abundance of stones made it natural to use them as missiles. Stone throwing might be merely a mark of hatred and contempt (2 Samuel 16:6-13), or the means of carrying out murderous intentions against which provision had to be made in the Law (Exodus 21:18, Numbers 35:17). Stoning to death which was at first an expression of popular fury analogous to "lynching", later came to be a natural and legally recognized method of execution. It was this regulated by law as an appointed means of capital punishment (Deuteronomy 17:5-7; Acts 7:58). Death by stoning is prescribed in the Pentateuch as the penalty for eighteen different crimes including Sabbath-breaking, but for one crime only — murder — is it the penalty prescribed in all the codes. The execution of the criminal usually took place outside the city walls, and according to Deuteronomy 17:7, the witnesses in the case were to cast the first stone: "Thou shalt bring forth the man or the woman, who have committed that most wicked thing, to the gates of thy city, and they shall be stoned. By the mouth of two or three witnesses shall he die who is to be slain.... The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to kill him, and afterwards the hands of the rest of the people". (Deuteronomy 17:5-7). Stoning is also mentioned in Acts 7:57-58, as the means by which Stephen the first Christian martyr was put to death: "And casting him forth without the city, they stoned him."

In fact, the Church Fathers have written very little on the subject of the death penalty at all and it seems any reference to stoning is not included.

How did the earliest Christians view the practice of capital punishment?

To borrow a phrase from social media: It’s complicated.

The issue arises in just a handful of documents from the first three centuries, and those few instances are sometimes vague, ambivalent or wavering. They resist the most ardent modern efforts to find consistency.

In the first century, Clement of Rome lamented the unjust execution of biblical heroes at the hands of wicked rulers (1 Clement 45). “The righteous were indeed persecuted, but only by the wicked. They were cast into prison, but only by the unholy; they were stoned, but only by transgressors; they were slain, but only by the accursed.” He spoke of specific instances of people wrongly accused and killed. But he did not say, or even imply, that the death penalty could never be administered justly, or that only the unjust would execute a death sentence.

Around A.D. 150, St. Justin Martyr said that Christians of his time “refrain from making war upon our enemies” and would rather die than take a life in self-defense (“First Apology,” 1.39). Justin was, of course, living in a time of persecution, when Christians had neither the means nor the authority to wage war or sentence anyone to death. It is difficult to say whether he intended to claim absolute pacifism as a perennial norm for Christians. If he did, he would have placed himself outside the mainstream of Christian thought.

Perhaps the strongest and clearest early-Christian statement against the death penalty comes from Athenagoras of Athens (around A.D. 177). Responding to those who accused Christians of ritual murder, he said: “We cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly. … How, then, when we do not even look on, … can we put a man to death?” (“A Plea for the Christians,” 35).

Again, however, the statement is not as binding as it might seem. He was defending the Church against the specific charge that its liturgies included child-murder. His intention was to establish that Christians were peace-loving people. He was not laying down universal moral principles.

Indeed, in the next generation, Clement of Alexandria, took quite the opposite position: “When one falls into any incurable evil,” Clement said, “… it will be for his good if he is put to death” (Stromata 1.27). And Clement was, in fact, laying down moral principles.

Yet Clement’s position was not universal. His contemporary Tertullian, a North African, decisively opposed the practice of capital punishment, claiming that the Creator “puts his interdict on every sort of man-killing” (“On the Shows,” 2). Tertullian was (like Justin) a pacifist who believed that Christians should not serve in the military. In this, he found company with Hippolytus, a Roman priest who urged pastors to deny baptism to any soldier whatsoever. “A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out” (“Apostolic Tradition,” 16.9).

Yet we know, from the graves in the Roman Catacombs, that the early Christians were amply represented in all the branches of the military. Pacifism may have been the ideal of men like Tertullian and Hippolytus. But in the time of Marcus Aurelius, there was an entirely Christian unit in the Roman army.

As the third century turned over to the fourth, Lactantius, a prominent Christian intellectual, opposed capital punishment, as it was the cause of death for many of his co-religionists during the Diocletian persecution. And Lactantius held this position as long as Christians were vulnerable. Yet, later — once Constantine, a Christian, had taken the imperial throne — the same Lactantius spoke in favor of the emperor’s right to impose the death penalty.

The early Christians’ treatment of capital punishment differed essentially from their condemnation of certain other forms of killing — abortion and infanticide, for example, and the blood sport of the gladiatorial games. In each of those cases, the judgment was consistently straightforward, unhesitating and unequivocal.

But when modern scholars survey the first Christians’ positions on the death penalty, they come to vastly different conclusions.

Cardinal Avery Dulles said: “The early Christians evidently had nothing against the death penalty … [T]he Fathers and Doctors of the Church are virtually unanimous in their support for capital punishment.”

The great Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries — Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine — recognized the right of the state to execute criminals, but urged rulers not to exercise that right. St. Ambrose told a Christian judge named Studius: “You will be excused if you do it, but you will be admired if you refrain when you might have done it” (“Letter,” 50).

Ambrose’s disciple, St. Augustine, characterized the good Christian ruler as “slow to punish, but ready to pardon” (“City of God,” 5.24). He justified capital punishment when there was “no other established method of restraining the hostility of the desperate.” Then, he said, “perhaps extreme necessity would demand the killing of such people” (“Letter,” 134).

Augustine recognized the state’s right to wield the sword, but he hoped that lethal use would be extremely rare. “As violence is used toward him who rebels and resists, so mercy is due to the vanquished or the captive, especially in the case in which future troubling of the peace is not to be feared” (“Letter,” 189).

The later Fathers synthesized the various testimonies of their predecessors and concluded that mercy should predominate among Christian peoples, and life should be spared in all but the rarest cases. In this they speak with the same voice as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. John Paul II (Evangelium Vitae, 56) and indeed all the recent popes, the bishops of the United States and all the bishops’ conferences that have issued statements on the subject.

In this matter as in most matters, we see consistency between the earliest Fathers and our current leaders and teachers — and greater clarity with the passage of time. - The early Church and the death penalty

Although the Church Fathers write little on to subject of capital punishment, the subject of stoning is obviously lacking. No obviously Church Father writes about the merciful nature of stoning as a form of execution at all.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .